Appreciating the Difficult Person

It happens to all of us… we have an employee, colleague, or customer whom we find difficult. These individuals provoke a wide range of emotions in us: from exasperation, to dislike, to wishing we never have to engage with them again in our lifetime. Our behaviors range from avoiding them, to being overly compliant, or even, interestingly enough, to becoming difficult ourselves.

When we can only see where someone impinges upon our enjoyment of our work, our performance, or that of our team’s, we have a blind spot–one that precludes us from seeing how in fact, the difficult person actually helps us be more of the leader and person we want to be, or helps our company move toward its goals.

Just like any blind spot, it takes a little extra effort to see what cannot be easily seen. It’s helpful to look at the larger picture within which the person fits and ask questions like the following:

  • “How has his behavior helped us move toward our goals?”
  • “How am I contributing to this difficult relationship?”
  • “Is there anything else going on at work or in other areas of my life that are impacting this situation?”
  • “How has his behavior helped me be a better leader?”

When working with clients who are ruffled, usually with some vehemence, by a difficult person, I pose these or similar questions to them. I will hear responses like the following:

  • “When you asked me to do this, I didn’t think there was anything I could possibly find useful in how he acts. He’s disrupted my team for months and in a way I never knew how to address directly. After some thought, I reluctantly admitted he caused us to address a longstanding problem that affected our company’s performance. What I realize now is that he speaks up, even if I don’t like how he does it, where others may not.”
  • “I discovered a rigid rule I expect everyone to operate by… When someone doesn’t, I consider the person difficult, don’t like them, and then I get secretly difficult in response.”
  • “The realization I had was disturbing–I’d let her become the scapegoat for my job dissatisfaction. I’ve seen this in myself before but this one snuck up on me. I’ve been moving so fast, I couldn’t see the signs. It’s clear I need to make a change. I don’t like everything she does, but I need to let her off the hook and be responsible for what the real issue is.”

When we can find something to appreciate in the seemingly unappreciable, we experience a shift. No, it may not resolve a performance or relationship issue that requires further insight and action. It will however, help us have a richer perspective… one that allows for something good to be revealed. From that place, any actions will have a more productive impact on all involved.

U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

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